Saturday, July 05, 2008

2008 Big 12 Preview

North Division

After failing to win more than 5 Big 12 games in any season since the league’s inception, Missouri sprung onto the national stage with 7 league wins and a North Division title. That title broke the stranglehold that the triumvirate of Kansas State, Nebraska, and Colorado had held on the North since the Big 12 began play in 1996. Can Missouri continue their fine play or are they hurtling back toward Big 12 mediocrity?

Perspective is they key to evaluating Missouri’s seemingly divergent stat line in 2007. The Tigers ranked 5th in the nation in total offense, averaging a robust 490 yards per game. Defensively, they were rather milquetoast, ranking 59th in total defense and allowing 379 yards per game. However, if you change the perspective and view the Missouri Tigers through the prism of the Big 12 a different picture emerges. In conference play, the Tigers gained the 3rd most yards (behind Texas Tech and Oklahoma State) at 489 per game (nearly identical to their overall number). Defensively, though, the Tigers were the best team in the Big 12! They allowed only 354 yards per game to their Big 12 opponents. As you can see from the table below, the Big 12 had a lot of powerful offenses in 2007. Among BCS conferences, only the average Pac-10 school gained more yards in conference play. This helps explain why Missouri’s defense, while rated rather low nationally, was actually pretty good. In 2008, that unit brings back 8 starters and 9 of the top-10 tacklers, so it should once again be one of the better defenses in the Big 12.

Of course, no one watches Missouri games for the defense. They watch to see how many points the Chase Daniel-led offense can produce. The answer should be ‘a lot’ in 2008. Daniel does lose his backfield mate, Tony Temple, and his 1000+ yards on the ground and tight end Martin Rucker (1st on the team with 84 catches). However, super-soph Jeremy Maclin (over 1000 yards receiving and nearly 400 on the ground) returns and the Tigers have a capable replacement for Rucker in tight end Chase Coffman (he actually caught the 3rd most passes in 2007). Like the defense, the offense should also be one of the league’s best once again and keep the Tigers on course to play for the Big 12 title.

Prediction: If Illinois didn’t spring the upset last year, it’s not likely they’ll be able to turn the trick this season. That is the only non-conference game to be slightly concerned with. The others (SE Missouri, Nevada, and Buffalo) should be walkovers. Nevada may be one of the better teams in the WAC, but last season Nebraska blistered the Wolfpack defense for over 600 yards. Missouri should have no trouble with them in Columbia. In conference play, the Tigers have two very difficult road tests that will likely keep them out of the MNC picture—at Texas (no wins since 1896) and at Nebraska (no wins since 1978).

Oh how the mighty have fallen. In Bill Callahan’s 4-year tenure, the Huskers posted two losing seasons, an overall record of 27-22, a Big 12 record of 15-17, and suffered a handful of embarrassing defeats (at home to Southern Miss in 2004, giving up 70 to Texas Tech in 2004, and 76 to Kansas in 2006). Not surprisingly, the administration felt now was the time to relieve Callahan of his duties and go in a new direction. That new direction will be navigated by Bo Pelini, a former defensive coordinator and head coach at Nebraska (the 2003 Alamo Bowl). Pelini will have his work cut out for him in 2008, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The Huskers allowed an average of 37.9 points per game in 2007. If you guessed that was the highest average the Huskers have ever allowed, give yourself a pat on the back. If you also knew they allowed over 30 per game in 1943 (32.6), well get a life.

So how much improvement can we expect from Nebraska in regard to the parsimoniousness of their defense. Here’s a quick and dirty little study. The table below lists every BCS conference school that allowed at least 35 points per game over the course of an entire season since 2002. Of the 13 total teams, all but Indiana, Duke, and two incarnations of Baylor improved by at least 5 points per game. It’s not going out on a limb to say Nebraska has more talent on defense than Baylor, Indiana, and Duke could ever dream of possessing. Plus, as noted in the Missouri preview, the Big 12 was one of the league’s most conducive to offense in 2007. Now this is not to say that Nebraska was not piss-poor awful on defense in 2007. They were, ranking 112th in total defense (477 yards per game). However, exponential improvement is not only possible (just from looking at the recent past in the table), it’s probable now that a fiery defensive-minded coach is roaming the sidelines. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Nebraska’s opponents dip below 30 points per game against the Huskers. This may be damning with faint praise, but a touchdown per game improvement is nothing to dismiss.

On offense, the Huskers were pretty good in 2007. They finished 9th nationally in total offense, gaining 468 yards per game, and in Big 12 play they finished 6th in yards gained. Of course, a lot of those yards came well after the outcome of some games were decided (think the Southern Cal and Kansas debacles), but the offense was distinctly above average at worst in 2007. In 2008, the Huskers return quarterback Joe Ganz who started the last 3 games after Sam Keller was injured. The one good thing about playing from behind so much in those final 3 contests was that Ganz got some experience throwing the ball (148 pass attempts in the last 3 games). Of course, one can also argue that many of those attempts were against soft defenses since the margins against Kansas and Colorado were out of hand very early. Still, it’s hard to see Ganz as markedly worse than Sam Keller was last season. In all likelihood, the Husker passing attack will be just as efficient in 2008 as it was in 2007. Joining Ganz in the backfield is running back Marlon Lucky. Lucky gained over 1000 yards last season and was also the team’s second-leading receiver. He should once again put up good numbers, in particular running the ball, as the Huskers will likely not be forced to pass so much early on as the defense improves.

Prediction: Not only was Nebraska bad last season, they were also unlucky. Their turnover margin of -17 will trend upward. What was particularly amazing about turnovers for Nebraska last season was the defenses inability to create them. They created only 11 last season (118th or second to last in the nation). One reason was that the defense rarely got pressure on the quarterback (13 sacks—111th in the nation), but another was entirely out of the Huskers hands (literally). Nebraska opponents recovered 80% of their own fumbles (12 of 15). That’s an entirely random and unsustainable run of bad luck. Couple those facts with an inviting home schedule where the two new Big 12 North powers (Missouri and Kansas) must come to Lincoln (Missouri hasn’t won in Lincoln since 1978 and Kansas hasn’t won there since 1968) and the pieces are in place for marked improvement. In non-conference action, the only test is a home game with Virginia Tech. Even under Callahan, the Huskers were a solid 19-8 at home, so a win here is not out of the question. Best case for the Huskers is a 9-win regular season with a shot at a 10th win in the bowl. Worst case is 6 regular season wins and a nondescript bowl game.

reached historic heights in 2007, winning 12 games, tying for the Big 12 North title, and winning the Orange Bowl. The Jayhawks parlayed a soft schedule (they avoided Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech in conference play), some good luck (4-1 in one-score games), and a great turnover margin (+21—tops in the nation) into a spectacular record. The Jayhawks have almost no hope of matching last year’s amazing season, but Kansas appears to be a fixture in the North Division race for the foreseeable future.

Last season the Jayhawk offense absolutely shredded overmatched defenses. They dropped 52 points on Central Michigan, 62 on SE Louisiana, 45 on Toledo, 55 on Florida International, 58 on Baylor, 76 on Nebraska, and 43 on Oklahoma State. Even against good defenses, they were able to score—28 against Missouri in their only loss and 24 in the Orange Bowl win over Virginia Tech. For the season, the Jayhawks averaged 42.8 points per game (2nd in the nation) and gained 480 yards per game (8th in the nation). Even in the offensively stacked Big 12, the Jayhawks were above average (they gained the 5th most yards in conference games). The Jayhawks lose some key players in 2008 (leading rusher Brandon McAnderson, leading receiver Marcus Henry, and their best offensive lineman Anthony Collins), but should remain quite stout on offense. Quarterback Todd Reesing (148.73 passer rating in 2007—13th in the nation) returns for another year. His backfield mate will likely be Jake Sharp, who gained over 800 yards himself in 2007. Sharp should acceptably replace the departed McAnderson’s production. Dexton Fields and Dezmon Briscoe (combined for over 100 catches, 1300 yards, and 13 touchdowns in 2007) should see more balls thrown their way and help ease the loss of Henry. The Jayhawk offense will not be quite as prolific in 2008, but it would be a great shock if they don’t average 30 points per game.

As good as the offense was, the Jayhawk defense may have been the bigger story in 2007. The defense allowed only 16.4 points per game (4th in the nation) and only one team (Missouri) was able to consistently move the ball when the game was on the line. The defense returns 9 starters, but one of the losses is quite significant. Corner Aqib Talib (team-leading 5 interceptions in 2007) has gone to the next level. Aside from Talib though, nearly every other significant player is back. The only problem is that the defense played over its head in 2007. The Jayhawks created an amazing 35 turnovers (tied for 4th in the nation) in 2007. Those turnovers not only put the offense in great position to score, it also kept opponents from scoring (duh right?). The prospect of the Jayhawks gaining that many turnovers in 2008 is slim to none. The defense should still be quite good, but it will likely move from the top of the Big 12 (2nd in yards allowed in Big 12 play in 2007) towards the middle.

Prediction: The schedule is tougher and the Jayhawks luck will probably be worse, but Kansas still has the potential to be a very good team. The non-conference slate features 3 sure wins (Florida International, Louisiana Tech, and Sam Houston State) and one very intriguing game at South Florida. In Big 12 play, two of the road tests are very tough (Oklahoma and Nebraska) and the home schedule has some pot holes (Texas and Texas Tech), but the Jayhawks should once again post a winning record in Big 12 play.

After a disastrous 2006 season that saw Colorado lose to both Montana State and Colorado State en route to a 2-10 season, the 6-7 finish in 2007 was a substantial improvement. That’s not to say Colorado was a good team in 2007. On the contrary, they were a mediocre team that pulled off one major upset (knocking off 3rd ranked Oklahoma 27-24) another minor one (at Texas Tech) and crapped the bed against an Iowa State team they led 21-0. Otherwise, they basically beat the teams they should and lost to the teams that were better than them. Colorado may be better in 2008, but the schedule will prevent them from returning to a bowl game.

In 2007, the Colorado offense improved substantially throwing the football, thanks primarily to the addition of quarterback Cody Hawkins. The team completed only 46.9% of their passes (117th in the nation) and averaged a paltry 5.6 yards per pass (109th in the nation) in 2006. Those numbers jumped to 56.1% (81st in the nation) and 6.4 yards per pass (87th in the nation). The Buffs were still a below average passing team, but they were no longer an abysmal one. Hawkins returns along with 5 other starters in 2008. His two leading receivers, fellow sophomores Scotty McKnight and Josh Smith, are back so the passing game should continue its upward trajectory in 2008. The Buffs do lose leading rusher Hugh Charles (1071 yards in 2007) and 3 starting offensive linemen, so the running attack may suffer a bit of a decline.

Befitting their 6-7 record, the Buffs defense was below average as well in 2007. Their national rank in total defense (64th) is mediocre, but in Big 12 play, only 3 teams (Oklahoma State, Baylor, and Nebraska) allowed more yards. The Buffs had a real problem pressuring opposing passer, netting only 20 sacks all season (95th in the nation in sacks per game). Their best defensive player, tackle George Hypolite (6 sacks and 11 tackles for loss in 2007), is back along with 7 other starters. The Buffs defense should be marginally improved in 2008 and trend toward the middle of the Big 12.

Prediction: The schedule is a nightmare. In conference play, the Buffs must travel to Kansas, Missouri, Texas A&M, and Nebraska. Any record other than 1-3 in that stretch is hopelessly optimistic. Texas, Kansas State, Iowa State, and Oklahoma State must come to Boulder, so the Buffs must take care of business at home. That’s not a given either by the way. In the new century, Colorado is a very average 27-19 in home games. That winning percentage ranks ahead of only Baylor among Big 12 teams. That’s very surprising considering the elevation in Boulder. But I digress. The non-conference slate is not easy either. The Buffs host a likely top-10 foe in West Virginia and travel to Jacksonville to take on Florida State. Elsewhere they have a gimme against Eastern Washington and open the season with rival Colorado State. The Buffs have beaten the Rams 4 of the last 5 years, but each game has been decided by 7 points or fewer. If Colorado wins more than 6 games, Dan Hawkins is the coach of the year.

Kansas State
It wasn’t as dramatic as the tailspin I witnessed in Columbia, but the Wildcats limped to the finish as well, losing their last 4 games and 5 of 6 to end what seemed like a shot at a very good year at 5-7. Did something change in those last 6 games? Yes something did change. The defense fell off the map. It should be noted that in the first 6 games, 3 were against offensively challenged schools Auburn (97th in total offense), San Jose State (88th in total offense), and Missouri State (IAA). Still, the Wildcats held the explosive Texas offense (13th in total offense) to only 330 yards. And it’s not as if the 2nd half of the schedule didn’t include lightweights too—Baylor (85th in total offense) and Iowa State (102nd in total offense) were the only teams Kansas State held under 400 yards in the last 6 games. They were equal opportunity awful too—as likely to get beat on the ground as through the air. Oklahoma State rushed for over 300 yards, Nebraska passed for over 500, and Fresno State had 200 on the ground and 300 in the air. The bad guys in Death Wish had a better chance at offing Charles Bronson than Kansas State had of stopping anyone. So what’s in store for 2008?

While the defense was getting torched over the 2nd half of the season, Josh Freeman was busy maturing into a solid quarterback. After an awful freshman season during which he posted a passer rating of 103.45 (96th in the nation) and completed just a shade over half his passes (51.9%) with an awful TD/Int ratio of 6-15, Freeman upped his completion percentage to 63.3, his ratio to 18-11, and his passer rating to 127.26 (60th in the nation—one spot ahead of Matt Ryan). Freeman will surely pass Lynn Dickey as the school’s all-time leader in passing yards by late October, and could help turn the Wildcats into one of the league’s better offenses. Freeman will miss his leading receiver, Jordy Nelson (2nd in the nation with 122 catches in 2007), but his offensive line returns nearly intact (4 of 5 starters are back). The offense will miss Nelson, but if Freeman continues to improve the offense should be fine.

Now back to the defense. The good news I suppose, is that the majority of the starters from last season’s free-falling defense are gone. Only 5 starters return. Their best defensive player, defensive end Ian Campbell is back. Campbell had only 4.5 sacks in 2007 after netting 11.5 in 2006. One of the main reasons for his decline was that he was moved to linebacker when the Wildcats switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense. Back at end, he should see his sack total climb. In a nod to their history under Bill Snyder, a ton of JUCO talent will be filling the void left by the departing players. Since the JUCOs are such an unknown quantity, it’s hard to say how good the defense will be in 2008. It’s pretty certain though that they will not be as bad as they were over the last 6 games of 2007.

Prediction: At least a 3-1 record is assured before the Wildcats begin Big 12 play (North Texas, Montana State, and Louisiana-Lafayette come to Manhattan and the Wildcats travel to Louisville). In conference play, the Wildcats must travel to Missouri and Kansas, two teams they have yet to beat under Prince. They also don’t get any favors in their home games—Texas Tech and Oklahoma are two of their draws from the South. Unless the JUCO talent is lights out, it’s hard to envision Kansas State in postseason play in 2008.

Iowa State
The jury is still out on how successful Gene Chizik will be at Iowa State. His first team didn’t win many games (3-9) or produce a lot of offense—327 yards per game (102nd in the nation). However, there were some memorable moments—a win over rival Iowa, a win over Kansas State, and a thrilling comeback victory over Colorado. The Cyclones were also competitive against eventual Big 12 champ Oklahoma, losing only 17-7. If 2008 is anything, it will be a year of new beginnings.

For the first time since 2003, the Cyclone quarterback will not be Bret Meyer. Meyer departs as the Cyclones all-time leading passer, but too often the offenses he led failed to move the ball or score points. Part of that is the fact that the team never averaged more than 3.2 yards per rush during Meyer’s tenure. So spread the blame around to the line and running backs too. The new quarterback is Austen Arnaud, a more nimble player. Arnaud’s ability to run may help the offense break the mythical 4 yards per carry barrier. The Cyclones lose not only their all-time leading passer, but also their all-time leading receiver. Todd Blythe, who hauled in 52 balls last season, is gone. However, the Cyclones bring back 4 of 5 starting offensive linemen and their other two top receivers (RJ Sumrall and Marquis Hamilton). The Cyclones were the worst offense in Big 12 play last season. They should improve marginally, but not significantly.

The Cyclone defense was actually decent last season, despite the fact that they gave up 31.8 points per game (93rd in the nation). Based on yards allowed (327 per game), they were a much more respectable 65th in the nation and in Big 12 play only they were 7th in yards allowed. The unit returns 7 starters in 2008, so more marginal improvement is likely. However, I would not expect any miracles.

Prediction: A 2-0 start is likely, with South Dakota State and Kent State to open the season. The Cyclones then travel to Iowa City to take on the rival Hawkeyes. Iowa has won the last two in Iowa City, but they have been decided by 7 and 10 points respectively. A 3-0 start is not out of the realm of possibility. Next up is a trap road game at what may be one of the most improved Mountain West teams, UNLV. A 4-0 start would be great, but 3-1 or even 2-2 is more likely. In Big 12 play, the Cyclones unfortunately get their most winnable games on the road—Baylor, Oklahoma State, Colorado, and Kansas State. Their home schedule is very tough—Kansas, Nebraska, Texas A&M, and Missouri. It will be hard for the Cyclones to match last year’s 2 Big 12 wins.

South Division

Last season, the Longhorns lost 3 (regular season) games in Big 12 play for the first time since 1997. The Horns fell to Oklahoma, arch-rival Texas A&M (for the 2nd straight season), and Kansas State (also for the 2nd straight season). If the Horns can avenge two of those losses (they don’t play Kansas State), a Big 12 title may be in their future.

Last season, the Texas offense was led by running back Jamaal Charles who gained over 1600 yards and averaged 6.28 yards per rush. Unfortunately for the Horns, Charles bolted early for the NFL and must be replaced. Fortunately for his replacement, either redshirt freshman Foswhitt Whittaker or a trio of returnees, 4 of the 5 starting offensive linemen return, so there should be plenty of holes to run through. Quarterback Colt McCoy also returns for his junior season and looks to improve upon a somewhat disappointing sophomore campaign. As a freshman in 2006, McCoy posted a passer rating of 161.82 (8th in the nation) and threw only 7 interceptions. In 2007, his rating fell to 139.16 (24th in the nation) and his interception total jumped to 18. Even if he only maintains his performance from 2007, the Texas passing attack should remain quite potent. It’s likely that his interception total will drop precipitously and his passer rating will climb back towards the top-10. McCoy does lose his leading receiver Nate Jones, but two starting receivers return and as mentioned earlier, the offensive line returns nearly intact. The Longhorns offense should once again be one of the best in the Big 12.

The Texas defense was somewhat disappointing in 2007. The unit allowed 371 yards per game (52nd in the nation), but as has been mentioned ad nauseum in this post, the Big 12 featured many talented offenses in 2007. In conference play, the Longhorns finished a solid 4th in yards allowed (behind Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma). That’s the good news. The bad news is that Texas returns only 4 starters on defense in 2008. 3/4ths of the secondary and 2/3rds of the linebackers are gone so the back end of the defense may suffer some growing pains. Still, the Horns defense should remain in the middle of the Big 12 pack at worst.

Prediction: The toughest task the Horns face in non-conference action is at home against Arkansas. With the personnel losses in Fayetteville and the fact that the game is in Austin, that one shouldn’t be too difficult either. In conference play, the Horns have only 3 road games (Colorado, Texas Tech, and Kansas). Neither of those will be easy, but the Horns will certainly take at least 1 and possibly 2 of those games. The Horns other two tough tests come at home against Missouri and in Dallas against Oklahoma. If they can knock off the Tigers at home and beat Oklahoma for the 3rd time in 4 years, the Big 12 South will be theirs.

Another year, another BCS bid for Oklahoma. Under Bob Stoops, the Sooners have appeared in 6 BCS bowl games in 9 seasons (5 of the last 6 years). Can the Sooners make it 7 for 10 and 6 for 7 in 2008?

Before evaluating Oklahoma’s prospects for 2008, it’s important to take a look back at what they actually did in 2007. Overall, the Sooners prolific offense averaged 449 yards per game (19th in the nation). However, in their 8 regular season Big 12 games, the Sooners were actually below average. 8 other Big 12 teams gained more yards in conference play. Only Colorado, Baylor, and Iowa State gained fewer yards against Big 12 foes. The Sooners obliterated non-conference patsies North Texas and Utah State, gaining 1285 yards in those two games to pad their offensive statistics. Despite those below average conference numbers, the Sooners got some very good performances from their offensive skill players in 2007. Freshman quarterback Sam Bradford led the nation in passer rating (176.53). However, as I’ve said before, expecting Bradford to repeat his spectacular performance is pure folly. Bradford will still be a great quarterback, but his numbers won’t match those from 2007. Returning along with Bradford on the offensive side of the ball in 2008 are all 5 starting offensive linemen and his leading receiver Juaquin Iglesias. The Sooner offense should no longer be at the bottom of the Big 12 in yards gained, but don’t expect them to be at the top of the league either.

As is usually the case under Stoops, the Sooner defense was once again top-notch in 2007. The Sooners allowed 338 yards per game (26th in the nation) and in Big 12 play, they finished second to Missouri in yards allowed. The Sooners allowed over 400 yards only 4 times during the season (Missouri, Baylor!?, Texas Tech, and West Virginia). This season, the defense returns only 5 starters and the Sooners lose their top-4 tacklers. Still with the talent Stoops has brought to Norman since he arrived, the defense should continue to be one of the league’s best, though not necessarily elite.

Prediction: The Sooners open the season with sure-fire beatdown of Chattanooga, then face what should be a rebuilding Cincinnati squad. The next game is an intriguing road trip to Seattle to take on the Washington Huskies. The final non-conference game against TCU is an opportunity of sorts for revenge. The Horned Frogs are the last team to beat the Sooners in Norman. A 4-0 record is likely for the Sooners outside the league. In conference play, the South title likely come down to the neutral site battle with Texas. One of the 3 conference road games besides Baylor likely holds a loss (Kansas State, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma State). The Sooners were not quite as dominant based on down-to-down performance as their record indicated in 2007. Consequently, they will fail to meet the grand expectations set for them in 2008.

Texas Tech
Another year, another bowl game for the Red Raiders. Mike Leach has turned the Texas Tech program into the best darn 3rd wheel in the Big 12 South. How has he done it? By beating those directly below him. He’s gone 6-2 in his 8 seasons against Texas A&M and 5-3 against Oklahoma State, the two teams competing against him for positioning below the two South Division juggernauts—Oklahoma and Texas. Can the Red Raiders finally break through the glass ceiling of the Big 12’s caste system and take the South title?

Offensively, the Red Raiders should once again light up the scoreboard. It should come as a surprise to no one that the Red Raiders finished 2nd in the nation in total offense, averaging a robust 530 yards per game. That unit returns every starter save one in 2008. The lone missing piece is wide receiver Danny Amendola. Amendola caught 109 passes for over 1200 yards last season, but that wasn’t even close to leading the team. Freshman Michael Crabtree exploded onto the scene grabbing 134 balls for 1962 yards and 22 touchdowns. With so much returning talent and experience, the Red Raiders should not miss a beat on offense.

The Tech defense was decent last season, ranking 45th in the nation in total defense, allowing 365 yards per game. In Big 12 play, they were the 5th best defense in terms of yards allowed, behind the usual suspects in the South (Oklahoma and Texas) and the unusual suspects in the North (Missouri and Kansas). In 2008, the Red Raiders may field the best defense in Leach’s tenure. 8 starters are back with the only major loss being safety and leading tackler Joe Garcia. The entire defensive line, that produced 18 of the team’s 26 sacks in 2007, returns for 2008. Tech’s defense should drastically improve and keep the Red Raiders in contention for the Big 12 South title.

Prediction: The non-conference slate includes two games against IAA foes (Eastern Washington and Massachusetts), though to be fair both squads made the playoffs last season, a home game against what should be an improved SMU squad, and a game that could see over 100 combined points at Nevada. A 4-0 start should be in the cards. In conference play, the Red Raiders have a brutal road schedule (Kansas State, Texas A&M, Kansas, and Oklahoma). Realistically 2 wins in those 4 games is the most a Red Raider fan can expect, especially considering the Red Raiders recent history of not showing up for at least one game per season. In 2005, Texas Tech’s 9-win regular season was undermined by a road loss to Oklahoma State (the lone Big 12 win for the Cowboys). In 2006, the Red Raiders were blown out (30-6) by a Colorado team that won only 2 games overall. In 2007, the Red Raiders lost at home to a Colorado team against whom they were favored by nearly 2 touchdowns (13-point spread). On the other hand, the home slate, besides Texas, is very winnable (Nebraska, Oklahoma State, and Baylor). If the Red Raiders can slip by Texas in Lubbock, they should find themselves in the Cotton Bowl on January 1st for the 2nd time in 4 seasons.

Oklahoma State
Consecutive 7-6 seasons fueled by spectacular offensive performances and moribund defensive showings have certainly been entertaining, but the Cowboys should have their sights set on achieving a Texas Tech-like perch in the Big 12 South pecking order. Can the defense show a little improvement in 2008, and give the Cowboys more than 7 wins for the first time since 2003?

Ah defense, the bane of Mike Gundy’s existence. If we don’t consider the Cowboys wins over Florida Atlantic and Sam Houston State, where they allowed a combined 9 points, the Cowboys points allowed totals in their wins were as follows: 45 in a win over Texas Tech, 14 in a whitewashing of Nebraska in Lincoln, 39 in a win over Kansas State, 14 in a win over Baylor, and 33 in the bowl win over Indiana. That’s 29 points per game in their wins! In the losses it was much worse. 35 to Georgia, 41 in an embarrassing loss to Troy on national television, 24 in a 1-point defeat to Texas A&M, 38 in a game they led by 21 in the 4th quarter to Texas, 43 in a loss to Kansas, and 49 in a drubbing by Oklahoma. 34.7 per game in the losses. The Cowboys were 101st in the nation in total defense, allowing 443 yards per game. That wasn’t entirely a product of playing in the Big 12 either. Only 2 teams (Baylor and Nebraska) allowed more yards in conference play. 6 starters are back on defense in 2008. That may or may not be a good thing depending on your perspective. In all likelihood, the Cowboys defense will probably be about the same in 2008. They should be a little better, as the 2007 squad only forced 19 turnovers (94th in the nation) all season. A few more quick changes will help the defense keep scoring down a little, but a dramatic shift in points allowed won’t happen.

Offensively, the Cowboys were the epitome of balance in 2007. They averaged 243 yards per game on the ground and 243 yards per game through the air. Overall, they ranked 7th in the nation in total offense and were 2nd in yards gained in Big 12 play. The Cowboys return 7 starters in 2008, but do suffer one significant loss in running back Dantrell Savage. Savage gained over 1200 yards and averaged 5.70 yards per rush in 2007. Whoever replaces Savage will have an offensive line that returns 4 of 5 starters, so the running attack should not suffer a great dip in production. As far as throwing the ball, the Cowboys may suffer a little decline as well, with the loss of leading receiver Adarius Bowman. However, with quarterback Zac Robinson (passer rating of 148.58—14th in the nation) returning and 80% of an offensive line that allowed only 11 sacks (3rd in the nation) in 2007 back, the passing should still be very prolific.

Prediction: The defense will get a little better and the offense will get a little worse. Sounds like the makings of another 4-4 season in Big 12 play. However, with no Georgia and 3 home non-conference games (Houston, Missouri State, and Troy) the Cowboys could top 7 wins. The opener against Washington State should be fun to watch. The Cougars have not had much of a defense recently, but playing what amounts to a virtual road game many miles from home could result in a closer than expected game. If the Cowboys win there, they will top 7 wins before the bowl.

Texas A&M
Was their a more unsexy coaching hire in the offseason than Texas A&M’s acquisition Mike Sherman to lead their program? I can’t think of one. Sherman inherits a team that was a very mediocre 32-28 under his predecessor Dennis Franchione. In fact, for most of the new century (5 times in 8 seasons), the Aggies have won between 5 and 7 games, making them a perennial fringe bowl team. Will Sherman take them back to a bowl in 2008 or does it have to get worse before it gets better?

The Aggies stats befit a team that finished the 2007 season 7-6 and 4-4 in Big 12 play. Overall they ranked 58th in total offense (397 yards per game) and 83rd in total defense (416 yards per game). In Big 12 play, they ranked 8th in yards gained and 6th in yards allowed—below average offensively and defensively. In 2008, the Aggie offense returns most of the skill position players, but must replace 4 starting offensive linemen. While the skill guys get the glory, it’s often the linemen who make the offense go. Quarterback Stephen McGee and running backs Mike Goodson and the portly Jorvorskie Lane may find there are fewer holes for them to plow through in 2008. The Aggies averaged over 5 yards per carry in 2005 and 2006. Even last season, they averaged a very good 4.78 yards per rush (24th in the nation). Look for a steep decline in those numbers and for the offense in general as their new offensive line struggles to find consistency.

Defensively, the Aggies also bring back only 5 starters. All 4 starters return in the secondary meaning the front 7 brings back only one starter, defensive end Cyril Obiozor. Obiozor led the team with 3.5 sacks last season. That’s not a misprint, as the Aggies managed only 18 as a team. On a per game basis, that comes to about 1.39 (104th in the nation). Don’t expect the Aggies to resemble their ‘Wrecking Crew’ units from the 1990s.

Prediction: Not only should the Aggies be a little worse on both sides of the ball in 2008, their luck should also be shoddier. The Aggies turned the ball over only 17 times in 2007 (14th in the nation). They did this by falling on over 65% of their own fumbles (recovered 17 of 26). Fumbles are a totally random aspect of football, and tend to hover around 50%. I guarantee that the Aggies will lose more than 9 fumbles in 2008. Now let’s examine the schedule. Arkansas State and Army should be easy wins in non-conference play. The other two non-conference games (at New Mexico and against Miami in College Station) are likely wins, but could also go the other way. New Mexico also field a competitive team under Rocky Long, and last season won at Arizona. Miami, though down, is still Miami, so it’s not safe to assume a perfect 4-0 record in non-conference play. In conference play, the Aggies have a somewhat favorable schedule (winnable road games at Baylor and Iowa State) as well as home contests against Kansas State and Colorado. If the Aggies can sweep those 4 games, they will go bowling. As it is, aside from the aberrational 2006 season when they went 4-0 on the road, the Aggies have fared quite poorly away from home recently. They were only 8-16 in true road games under Coach Fran. A 5th place finish in the Big 12 South is in store for Mike Sherman in his first season.

3 seasons ago, Baylor came oh so close to qualifying for a bowl game, finishing 5-6 overall. Even as recently as 2006, the Bears were a respectable 3-5 in Big 12 play. The bottom fell out on Guy Morriss and the Bears in 2007, as they failed to win a single Big 12 game. Morriss is gone and his replacement, Art Briles (formerly of the Houston Cougars) will look to do what no one has been able to accomplish in the history of the Big 12—get Baylor to a bowl game.

The Bears ranked 85th in the nation in total offense in 2007, gaining only 351 yards per game. In Big 12 play, only one team (Iowa State) gained fewer yards than the Bears. In their 8 Big 12 games, the Bears scored more than 20 points twice—23 against Colorado and 21 against Oklahoma. Moving the ball was a real issue for the team. Several things should allow the offense to be more productive in 2008. First and foremost, the team returns 8 and possibly 9 starters, depending on who wins the quarterback job (more on that in a moment). 4 of last season’s 5 starters on the offensive line return, so that unit should be much more consistent. Blake Szymanski started at quarterback last season and posted a passer rating of 117.06 (86th in the nation). He will be pushed in the preseason by Miami transfer Kirby Freeman (deplorable rating of 64.49 in 2007) and true freshman Robert Griffin. My money is on anyone but Freeman taking the reigns and posting decent numbers. The next reason to expect offensive improvement is because Art Briles is the coach. At Houston, Briles’ teams posted a 34-28 record in 5 seasons, played in 4 bowl games, and averaged over 30 points per game 3 seasons. He was a great hire for Baylor and may be just what they needed to get them out of their bowl drought.

Defensively, the Bears were atrocious in 2007. They allowed 462 yards per game (110th in the nation) and in Big 12 play, only Nebraska allowed more yards. The prospects for improvement are not as great as those of the offense, but the defense should be better. 6 starters return, including the top-2 tacklers, safety Jordan Lake and linebacker Joe Pawelek. The same table I used earlier for Nebraska applies here as well. The Bears gave up 37 points per game last season, so simple regression should ensure the defense is at least a little better in 2008.

Prediction: The Bears have some positive indicators heading into 2008. Their turnover margin of -18 was the worst in the nation in 2007. It will likely improve at least a tad in 2008. The Bears also had the good fortune of acquiring a very good offensive-minded head coach in Art Briles. However, after looking at the schedule, predicting a break out season for Baylor is not prudent. Outside of their South division foes, the Bears draw Missouri at home and must travel to Nebraska in two of their games against the North. The other is very winnable, at home against Iowa State. Outside the league, the only sure win is against Northwestern State. The Bears will likely be underdogs in the other 3 (Wake Forest and Washington State at home and at Connecticut). The Bears will win at least one Big 12 game, but with a tougher non-conference schedule, may not match 2007’s overall win total.

Predicted Records:


SCRedRaider said...

Hi Matt,

I'm a Red Raider in Columbia. I thought your article on Tech and the Big 12 was fairley accurate. I do believe that if Tech rolls into Kansas undefeated, the momentum could carry us. I doubt we win in Norman. I agree that the Cotton Bowl would be a worse case but a BCS is more likely. I sure would like to see more Big 12/SEC OOC games scheduled. That could be real fun.

matt said...

I tell you, I think the real litmus game will be on September 6th at Nevada. I don't think the Red Raiders have a real shot at losing that one, but I want to see if that new and improved defense can slow down the Wolfpack. If they can, Tech could be in for a big season. If not, well it's probably business as usual (4 Big 12 wins and a thrilling bowl game).